Zach Sobiech was virtually unknown in 2009, when he was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer that took his life at age 18 on May 20.
But the Lakeland, Minn., teen’s positive attitude about facing death, humility and kindness touched millions of people across the globe, largely through his farewell song Clouds, which quickly became a YouTube sensation, garnering more than seven million views and capturing the No. 1 spot on iTunes the week after his death.
More than a thousand people attended his funeral at the Church of St. Michael in Stillwater, Minn. They joined his parents, Rob and Laura, and three siblings in singing the song that touched the world: "We’ll go up, up, up, but I’ll fly a little higher. We’ll go up in the clouds, because the view is a little nicer up here, my dear. It won’t be long now." The song bears witness to the Catholic young man’s resolution that his illness had a purpose and that God’s plan isn’t always clear from our view on earth.
Laura Sobiech said her son did a lot of soul-searching and reflecting on what it means to have faith, especially after his cancer diagnosis.
"Weeks before he died, in a conversation with me and our parish priest, he said that he understood faith isn’t just something you do, but that faith is something that can help you. Faith isn’t just action; it’s a gift," she said.
Despite holding out hope for a miracle, the Sobiech family relied on their faith to get through the grim reports, nearly a dozen surgeries, months of hospital stays and, finally, his agonizing death at home.
"I started our journey with a real sense that God had a plan, and that never left me. I struggled with how to pray, so I prayed for both healing and strength to take on whatever God was asking of us," said Laura, who has developed a daily routine that starts with prayer and a greater devotion to the Rosary and the Blessed Mother, whom she could relate to as another mother who stood helpless while her son died.
"The way their faith grew during this time was really inspiring to everyone. The peace with which they faced this was incredible," said Father Michael Miller, pastor of St. Michael’s. "They left room for a miracle, but the miracle of what happened was their faith and how Zach touched people all over the world with his song. I’m amazed by the response it got and the effect it has had."
After they found out his illness was terminal, Laura encouraged Zach to consider writing letters to those he loved, but nothing came out the way he wanted.
"That’s how Clouds was born," she said. "He knew that he was likely going to die, and he was very concerned for those he was leaving behind. None of us knew that this thing would become as big as it has. The intention was to share his music with those who knew him."
Zach was "blown away" by the response from people, noted bandmate Sammy Brown, who attended St. Croix Catholic School and high school with him.
A gathering of celebrities touched by Zach’s story when it aired on the show My Last Days on the SoulPancake YouTube channel, paid tribute to him with a video of them lip-syncing the lyrics to Clouds. Two-time Grammy Award winner Jason Mraz, who spearheaded the video, appeared on Katie, Katie Couric’s daytime TV show, in June, along with Brown and Zach’s girlfriend, Amy Adamle.
"I had never heard a song with such purpose and a song that needed to be in the world," Mraz told Couric. "When it comes from the heart, it has the power to affect everyone."
Brown said Zach has always been a deep thinker, but after the cancer, he became much more reflective about why we’re here and what his purpose was in life.
"If anything, he developed more into who he was and who he was meant to be," she said. "He never let the fame go to his head, and that had a lot to do with his faith, because all he was trying to do was leave something for people to hold on to. He did that, and he never lost hope."
Inspiration to Others
Adamle, a member of St. Ambrose Catholic Church in Woodbury, Minn., who started dating Zach in her junior year of high school, said he was always a happy person, and even when things didn’t go well, he told people to cherish everything they’re given.
"I was able to see how he used his faith to get through it all, and I would see him praying, and he would tell me that it helped calm him down," recalled Adamle. "That helped my faith as well, especially when I was struggling to know that there was a bigger picture that we couldn’t see."
Laura Sobiech said the road she traveled with her son was a privilege, even though there were things he went through that were hard for a mother to watch. She constantly hears from people all over the world that they miss him even though they never knew him — and that the song changed their lives.
It could possibly be a catalyst to save lives as well. Zach felt an obligation to help other young people with osteosarcoma, and he started the Zach Sobiech Osteosarcoma Fund at Children’s Cancer Research Fund to raise money for cancer research, a major initiative, given that osteosarcoma is considered too rare to merit major funding efforts.
Zach’s hope was that the research would lead to prevention, treatment and cure of the disease, which affects about 400 children under the age of 20 each year.
"Our research team is leading the charge to bring two promising new drugs to osteosarcoma patients, an immune-based therapy and a drug that kills osteosarcoma cells. The fund also supports an effort to map the genetic factors that signal osteosarcoma growth," said Children’s Cancer Research Fund spokeswoman Kris Huson.
More than 6,000 donors have contributed to the fund, and all of the proceeds from the downloads of Clouds will also go to the fund.
Thus far, the song has been downloaded more than 200,000 times, and, in addition to being tops on iTunes, it was the No. 1 song streamed on Spotify and was charting well on the Billboard charts as the top digital song in the "rock" category, according to Huson.
Radio stations across the country are also playing the song and helping to raise money for the fund.
Zach’s message was very simple, his mom said: "Use your talents for good, and do your best to put a smile on someone’s face every day."
Barb Ernster writes from